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Houston expert: 4 tech trends to look out for in 2021

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year. Photo courtesy of Medley

The events of 2020 dramatically changed the way marketing agencies — like mine, Medley Inc. — do business. As we enter 2021, many executives are reflecting on how many of these changes will be sustained in the coming year.

From subscriptions to online shopping, the digital realm deserves our special attention in 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Medley, like many agencies, has pivoted to produce virtual events, run more targeted ads on all platforms, and become even more cloud-based and systemized.

As a business owner, it's clear to me that many of these shifts will persist long after the pandemic has ended. Here are four of the greatest changes I have observed and how they will continue to affect the way we do business in 2021.

1. Events will be hybrids on and offline

From the American Academy of Pediatrics to IBM, the 2020 pandemic forced businesses and organizations to fully digitize in-person conferences and events. With the coronavirus vaccine only just now being rolled out, it's likely that we won't be able to bring these events fully offline anytime soon.

While some organizations will probably host offline versions of their events, they may boast smaller attendance than usual or utilize a hybrid on- and offline strategy to account for the health and safety of their attendees. Thankfully, 2020 proved that there are fresh, innovative ways to engage participants in a virtual experience. Plan ahead to continue this innovation in 2021.

2. A platform to look out for

Clubhouse is the latest virtual platform, developed to eliminate the fatigue of online video events while still offering a new way to connect with others — including celebrities, thought leaders, and like-minded peers. What makes Clubhouse unique is that it's a hybrid between a never ending conference and a podcast, letting you tune into speakers and engage in lively discussions at your leisure.

Many experts are speculating that Clubhouse may be the next big social media platform, and for good reason: there's something there for everyone. Personally, I love some of the daily affirmation events happening on the platform. Niche apps like Quilt, which is geared exclusively toward women -- have also emerged, attesting to the growing power of socially distanced connections.

3. Subscription services and content fees will continue

Virtually eliminating offline revenue streams meant that many content platforms had to get creative about how they would continue to be profitable during the coronavirus pandemic. Already, we're seeing more news sites add paywalls and subscription services (or increase pricing on existing services) — a trend that likely won't change anytime soon.

Online video streaming is no exception to the rule. For example, Netflix recently announced a fee increase for 2021. Climbing content fees are likely a result of increased competition in the online streaming space, which has changed the way we consume traditional TV and movies.

As opposed to cable services, which pose a single monthly subscription fee for access to a variety of channels, the shows and films we love are contracted to single streaming platforms. Businesses like Netflix recognize that with this shift, we are increasingly willing to shell out a premium in order to continue consuming the content we love.

4. We will see more options with online shopping

As you may have noticed, Instagram now has a feature called Instagram Shopping. The department store giant Wal-Mart also partnered with influencers and Tik-Tok for Christmas to sell products in time for the holidays. Increased availability of online shopping is a natural evolution of a pandemic that makes it risky to leave our houses to go to the store. However, it's also a reflection of our society's growing need for convenience and instant gratification during the shopping experience.

In 2021, I anticipate that these options will only continue to grow. Expect products to appear at every turn on social media, whether you're scrolling your feed or watching an influencer live. As a result, we'll all need to be prepared to practice restraint each time we see items tailored to our interests.

At Medley, we're leaning into data-driven strategy and imagining the client experiences we've grown to love in a virtual world indefinitely. Regardless of what the future brings, we now know that there's a more convenient way to reach our consumers, connect and indulge a bit too.

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Ashley Small is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Medley Inc., a digital marketing and PR firm.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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